Women cut, bleached, or tied back their hair to avoid the look of the string of victims with long, brown hair. New York Mayor Ed Koch attributed his 1977 election victory in part to the “palpable” fear over Berkowitz that spread across the city.
Judges sentenced Berkowitz to more than 300 years in prison in 1978. At the time of sentencing, a state Supreme Court justice in the case said he would have sent Berkowitz to the electric chair if it had been an option. Another wounded victim at the sentencing said she’d “rather see him dead.”
But the victims faded into the background, while his fame as a criminal continued after he went behind bars. The apartment building where Berkowitz lived during the crimes changed its address from 35 Pine Street to 42 Pine Street to escape the spotlight, but visitors and camera crews kept coming.
As a result of the media frenzy, the New York Legislature passed a “Son of Sam” law preventing criminals from profiting off their stories. Director Spike Lee made a movie about the murders in 1999, and Berkowitz is featured as a character in the latest season of Netflix’s series Mindhunter. In that episode, a detective says to Berkowitz, “A hundred years from now, people will still know the name ‘Son of Sam.’”
Berkowitz doesn’t want to see any of the movies or hear any of the true-crime podcasts; he can hardly bear to talk about the crimes except as a dark time in his life. Berkowitz’s blog, Arise and Shine, has a page for an apology to his victims: “Not a day goes by that I do not think about the suffering I have brought to so many.”
“There’s a lot of skepticism even from Christians about Berkowitz. God chooses people that we would not choose.”
Some of his friends, detectives, and even the Queens district attorney at the time proffered the theory that others (perhaps from the cult he was a member of) helped commit the crimes. But Berkowitz pleaded guilty to all the killings, and he wouldn’t talk about it when I asked.
“If you come from a background where there’s a lot of tragedy, sordid tales, the Lord says to forget those things which are behind—not that you need to completely forget—but you don’t have to keep revisiting that,” he said. “Because the Lord has taken all my sins and thrown them into the depths of the sea, as the Scripture says, never to be remembered anymore. So why should I go fishing there and pull those things up?”
Scott Larson, head of Massachusetts prison ministry Straight Ahead, has worked with a number of lifers. He said once a criminal discusses a crime he or she committed, it’s hard ever to say the right thing: “It almost trivializes it or glorifies it—anything you say about it is not really remorseful.”
Berkowitz already relives the crimes when he goes to parole hearings every couple of years, which he says he attends only to “apologize and take responsibility.” Do you think about parole? I asked Berkowitz. “All the time,” he said.
He says he doesn’t deserve parole, “but at the same time I’m thinking, ‘Wow, if I was ever granted parole, all the good things I could do out there.’” Outside friends push him to pursue it, thinking of his potential ministry. But he wouldn’t ask anyone to advocate on his behalf at parole hearings, so he is torn. Other friends like Nash insist that he would never accept parole.
Prison minister Larson understands Berkowitz’s contradictory feelings: “Of course you’re going to say, ‘I don’t deserve parole,’ and of course, ‘Wow, what if I got parole.’ It makes sense that they would both be there.”
As decades pass, Berkowitz feels more and more isolated. No one in his family has spoken to him since his arrest. A search of “David Berkowitz” in The New York Times archives yields a litany of obituaries for people connected to the case in the last few years. One of his close friends died last year. Fellow cult members he was close to have also died.
Neysa Moskowitz, the mother of one murder victim, corresponded with Berkowitz and at one point talked about meeting in order to forgive him. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She died in 2006, but a close friend said she died forgiving “everyone.” Other victims don’t feel that way. One of Berkowitz’s shooting attacks blinded Robert Violante and killed his girlfriend. In a 2016 interview with the New York Post, he said, “I never got over the anger and bitterness.”